Sunday, December 2, 2012

Beyond the Image

Things have been a little hectic lately with the addition of our daughter, but I've somehow managed to find time to continue being as stubborn and determined as ever in my attempts to help educate our community. I'm happy to say that with the help of some friends (and by way of a few miracles) I'll be hosting a showing of the enlightening film, Beyond the Myth on Wednesday. The maker of the film, Libby Sherrill, will be attending. If you are anywhere near Owensboro, KY and haven't seen it yet, I encourage you to join us. There are still tickets available for purchase at the following link:

This film does a remarkable job of putting our current "pit bull crisis" into perspective and I believe every dog lover (or hater) should take the time to watch it. However, there are some other issues that I'd like to touch on in a bit more detail regarding the plight of the bully breeds.

Over the years I've observed a steadily growing number of trainers coming out of the woodwork to "specialize in aggression" or "rehabilitate difficult dogs." You almost always see them next to a pit bull or other commonly-discriminated breed; usually several of them, actually. And they often portray a very "tough" image. Now, before my readers get too offended I want to point out that it's not the look of these trainers themselves that upsets me. Trainers come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and backgrounds. There is no dress code involved in being a dog trainer. My concern is the image of the dogs they are using to help promote their business.

No matter which facet of "the pit bull problem" you're looking at, it ultimately boils down to one thing: image. The people creating breed bans and fostering the idea that these dogs are born killers see them as inherently evil. The sight of a pit bull to someone who has never worked with them regularly elicits fear or anxiety. Why? Because the media tends to focus on any tidbit of negative information they can find. And why is that? Because it sells. Pit bulls are regarded as rugged, tough, aggressive dogs.

The pit bull image sells a lot. It sells news stories, rap albums, countless backyard-bred puppies and yes... the pit bull image even sells training. You may not have consciously stopped to think about it before but the fact of the matter is, people tend to extend a certain amount of respect toward someone who regularly works with bully breeds. Why? Because people truly believe that they are tougher to handle than other dogs.

Before we can fix this, we must first recognize that it isn't the truth. A pit bull responds to the same exact training as a maltese or a great dane. A pit bull with aggression issues responds to the same exact training as a collie or golden retriever with aggression issues. Period. You do not have to be heavy-handed with any of these breeds. You don't need to shock or prong your way to obedience by any means. And no, [Alpha Trainer], you do not need to teach a four month old pit bull puppy to fear you in order to keep it from growing up aggressive. It needs socialization communication, understanding, and proper training just like a beagle puppy would.

My point is this: Pit bulls are not inherently evil and they absolutely need our help. Your goal may be to train (or as some people call it, "rehabilitate") them in an effort to help but if you don't focus on their image in the process you are ultimately doing more harm than good.

Toss the spiked collars, the prong collars, and the temptation to use the pit's misfortune to boost your own popularity. Allowing people to believe that you're special for being capable of living with or training pit bulls only feeds into the belief that there is something wrong or especially dangerous about the pit bull to begin with.

My goal in 2013 is to help more pit bulls/bully breeds get on their way to CGC titles, therapy work, and positive public appearances. I've already seen them do remarkable things and my community needs to see the same. They are capable, willing, and deserving of the same humane treatment that all breeds should enjoy. Until more people agree with this, we as dog lovers and trainers really need to remain hyper-aware of how we're presenting them to the public.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Pets vs. Babies Round Two: Shock and Awe

I'm not sure what the numbers are, but I'll bet an enormous amount of pets are relinquished every year as a result of a new baby arriving in the family.  More than once I've heard the saying that "Once you have a baby, your dog becomes just a dog." I had to wonder how these people define the word, "dog." Pets are family, not objects to be discarded the moment they become inconvenient. So, why do so many people make the seemingly quick and heartless choice to ditch the family pet?

On September 5th of this year I gave birth to our beautiful daughter, Sophia. Coming home with her a few days later marked the beginning of a brand new perspective on life for me. It also gave me a new perspective on the issue of why animals lose their homes after the arrival of a new baby. I hate to say it, but I actually began to understand the thoughts and feelings that lead up to such a sad decision. I also felt that if others were better prepared, we might see a few less pets being turned over just because a child was born. Or, when finding a new home is unavoidable, we might see a little less guilt from responsible pet owners who weren't able to make it work. Yes, you read that correctly. I believe that in some cases, a responsible pet-owning mother might make the decision to part ways with a beloved furry family member. Animal lovers tend to pass judgement pretty quickly on things like this (I know this because I'm guilty of it myself). This is because we see so much cruelty and unfairness toward the creatures that we love. But it is important to consider that there are always exceptions. Not every person who gives up a pet is a monster.

What most people don't always acknowledge or understand about pregnancy and birth is that they launch an arsenal of physical and emotional changes to a woman that can't completely be described with words. Every mom feels things a bit differently and personally, the feeling that shocked me the most was the powerful drive to protect my baby from any and everything that could be considered a threat. The intense attachment and love were very much expected (though still so much bigger than I ever could have dreamed) but there was also that almost primal instinct to guard her as well. And that instinct reared its head most noticeably when it came time to mix my human baby with my four-legged ones. Even now, almost six weeks later, it sometimes manifests itself as an almost debilitating form of anxiety.

Keep in mind that none of our dogs are even aggressive or have presented any signs of trying to use the new baby as a chew toy (though of course I would never leave her unsupervised with any dog; this is a rule all parents should abide by) yet I still had other worries.

Thanks to a good friend generously offering to watch over the younger two dogs, Cricket (the oldest) was the only canine home when we arrived with Sophia.  As expected, Cricket was extremely interested in the new addition. We allowed her to briefly sniff the baby's feet, but that was the extent of their interaction at first. Cricket is easily overstimulated and the excitement had her all over the place. She hadn't seen us in days and now we had this new tiny creature making weird sounds. Those sounds drove Cricket nuts! I had played baby noises to the dogs throughout my pregnancy but dogs aren't stupid and a real baby making noise is a completely different affair compared to noises coming out of laptop speakers. Every time the baby cried, Cricket had to pop in and inspect the situation. She seemed to be genuinely concerned and usually calmed down once she got a good glimpse of the baby. Of course, there were plenty of instances when she wasn't allowed in the same space as the baby. Sophia would be in one room wailing and Cricket would be in the next room doing the same. There were moments when I wanted to wail right along with them. After some time, she did get used to the baby's noises completely and doesn't react now. But at the time it really grated on my fragile nerves.

Then, there was our almost two-year-old, half blind, half deaf bull terrier, Obi-Wan. Obi is a great dog. He loves everyone he meets and is one of the most affectionate dogs I've ever had. But he's also crazy in the way that most bull terriers are crazy. His play style is reminiscent of the old Atari game, Pong. Except in this version, Obi is the ball and he moves at warp speed, taking out and/or bouncing off anything in his path. (Bull terrier owners have dubbed this behavior "hucklebutting.") This is normal behavior for a young bully, and I have worked on installing an "off" switch. The problem is that hucklebutting episodes can come out of nowhere so by the time you realize what's happening, he's already bounced off at least a couple of walls. This means that right off the bat I was terrified that Obi would go into crazy mode and slam into me while I was holding the new baby. All of a sudden Obi, my best friend, was at the top of my list of severe threats to my child. Trust me, that kind of paranoia will make you look at your beloved dog in a very different light. As a result, we have taken several measures to keep the baby and Obi mostly separate to ensure everyone's safety. It took weeks and weeks for me to stop feeling like I was an irresponsible parent just for having this dog in the same house as my daughter. In fact, I didn't feel very comfortable with it until the past week or so, when we rearranged things once again and found a better routine/balance to reassure to me that Obi and Sophia won't come together by accident. I do realize that I've probably overreacted to the situation, but the fear isn't something I can magically turn off.

The last dog is our foster border collie, Kota. Kota is completely blind and honestly, Kota is also pretty perfect as far as I'm concerned. I don't even know why I'm including him in this blog post. He is the picture of how most people want their dog to behave with a new baby; so gentle and easy-going. Someone needs to remind me why he's the one we're adopting out?? (Because he's a foster dog, we have very limited space, and he deserves to be the center of someone's world if I can find that for him... If you're interested in adopting the best dog ever feel free to contact me. :)

Getting back on topic...
On top of the intense roller coaster of emotions and the instinct to protect the baby from my own beloved pets is the fact that I have no time. This is a statement I would subconsciously brush off when I heard someone else say it in the past. Now that I'm on the other side of the situation I know that it's true and I really believe that time limitations must be a huge part of why so many new moms throw in the towel and give up on their pets. When you bring home a baby you barely have a few minutes to take a shower, have a meal, do the dishes or even go to the bathroom. Yes, this is true even when you have a significant other around to help. The popular advice to "sleep when the baby sleeps" sounds really good at first but in practice, it's just a little off, especially when you have pets (or, I imagine, other kids). When the baby sleeps, you have some big, fat,choices to make. You could sleep but then again, a shower really sounds great. You could get some laundry done (which somehow triples in quantity with the addition of the Tiny One). The dishes, which have also multiplied quickly, are an absolute must if you're bottle feeding. I won't even get into how time-consuming and insanely, enormously, completely stressful it is to add breast feeding/pumping into the equation. Especially if you're one of the many people who end up having challenges with this. And let's not forget that there is no telling how much time you have before the baby is up and in need of your constant attention again. You might have a couple of hours... you might only have ten minutes.

All of this leads to The Guilt: The terrible, unbearable, consuming cloud of guilt that constantly builds as you look around your house and realize that you're basically half-assing (no, 1/8th-assing) everything. It can feel so out of control...with no end in sight. How on earth do you average two hours of sleep (or something resembling sleep since you feel the need to constantly look over to make sure the baby is still breathing during the night) and STILL not get anything done? Almost 24 hours of being awake and nothing to show for it. Cue emotional breakdown #239.

At some point you realize that you've barely even pet your dogs in days. They have become something you barely have time to feed, water, and let in and out for potty breaks. They're confused and might as well be at a boarding kennel rather than in their own home at this point. Again, more guilt. You start to feel as if they would be better off somewhere else. How will you ever have a relationship with them again at this rate? How long is this kind of treatment going to continue before it becomes cruel to keep them? Maybe they need to go live with someone who doesn't utterly fail at this whole multitasking thing?  Next emotional breakdown in 3...2...

There are also many women who experience an incredible amount of anxiety in addition to what's considered normal. There are those who go through postpartum depression and in those cases, how they feel is unfathomable by anyone aside from themselves or someone who has gone through the same thing. These people are sometimes barely able to function enough to take care of themselves, let alone a baby. Let alone a dog.

While I was very lucky to have a friend that could help prepare me by sharing her own pet/baby experience (as well as others that provided general support) I think it's safe to say that most women receive pretty black-and-white advice. They're either pushed toward the route of giving up their pets or they are berated for even thinking about it. I believe there is a grey area we can find that is far more helpful: Be understanding of the stresses involved. I'm not saying that everyone who gives away their dog because of a baby is doing the right thing but I do believe that most new moms are very ill-prepared for the emotions they are going to feel after the baby is born (or even during pregnancy). Some of them probably end up making a rash decision based on feelings that are actually temporary. We need to be able to tell our friends or family members that it is completely normal to feel the way they are feeling. They WILL be overwhelmed. They will feel like the worst pet owner ever. They will even have to make decisions that put their pet on the back-burner for a while. Under most circumstances, I believe that pet is still better off at home with its human family than being sent somewhere else. However, at the end of the day only the new mom can decide what she can or can't handle. My hope is that with support, we will see more of them at least make an effort to find balance rather than choosing to immediately give up.

What it comes down to is that if someone is willing and able to make the situation work, we can help them along by being an ear to listen and a source of encouragement. Maybe even offer tips as someone who has been there. Don't make a new mother feel guilty if the most she can manage for a while is to offer her pet its most basic needs. New moms need to know that this is expected and that it won't be like this forever. (In my case, I've needed to hear this over and over again). And if a new mother decides that she can't handle it, there's not much more we can do aside from offer advice on finding a better home that doesn't involve dumping the pet at a shelter.

For me, things are settling down very slowly but surely. Every day presents its own challenges and as I tackle each one I learn something new that I hope to eventually share with others. This is easily one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life, but it is well worth it. And I feel that eventually I'll find a balance that will keep everyone in my family content. I've been informed that as soon as that happens Sophia will learn to crawl and we'll have to do it all over again. :)

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Shut Up and Train

Every now and then I have to remind myself that before all the books and research, I still managed to train my dogs. Granted, my methods weren't always the best but one of the lessons that I learned during that time is still probably the most important to me today.

The household I grew up in was often loud and chaotic, so my favorite way to decompress was to take my dog (at that time) Duke, a fluffy rottweiler/chow mix, out for a long walk. In my neighborhood, there was a long row of warehouses, and behind those warehouses was a huge, grassy field of nothingness; the closest thing that a kid could get to "the country" without actually living there. This was my favorite place to go. In the grassy area there was a little "creek" (more like a ditch, but to me it was a creek) that ran from one end to the other. If you found a good spot to jump over the creek you could go up a small hill, through the treeline, and onto an open, paved lot. Very few people bothered to pass through that area, so it was perfect. (In hindsight, it was also probably fairly dangerous, but something about having what looked like a big fluffed up rottweiler with me made me feel pretty protected. He never bit anyone in his entire life, but they didn't know that.)

Once I arrived in the field, I'd unleash Duke and watch him go. This was our routine. (At the time, I had no idea that the steps I first took which made that off-leash routine possible were very similar to the proper approach to teaching a solid recall in the world of science-based training.) Duke would run laps, jump the creek, and have a great time. He never strayed too far and if I jumped the creek to hang out on the paved end of the lot, he would follow and do the same. If his exploring took him farther than I liked, I'd simply call him back over and he always came running. Otherwise, everything we did was in silence. A slight hand gesture would bring him to a sit or down. Another would signal a stay. That silence helped us both read each other clearly; it was so important and so calming.

Sometimes the best way to make yourself interesting
is to stop trying so hard.
In later years, I would find myself in a group dog training class that threatened to spiral out of control. The dogs were completely distracted and their owners were so flustered that it seemed there was no chance of putting everyone back on track. Verbal commands were being repeated left and right to dogs who had become so confused and disinterested that they were simply learning to tune out their owners' muddy requests. Communication had all but fallen apart.

Of course, ending a class on such a bad note is never a good thing, but I wasn't sure how well my usual methods of wrapping things up positively would work this time, especially for the humans! On a whim, I thought of Duke and decided to give the silent treatment a shot. I had the class spread out a bit and stand in one place with their dogs. Their instructions were simple: Don't say a word and don't physically touch the dog. The goal was eye contact and from that point, I wanted a simple "sit." Hand signals were fine but absolutely no talking or touching.

In no time, the room went quiet and all canine eyes were locked on the appropriate human. Doggy butts were soon planted on the floor and treats were casually handed over in silence. Our next step was to achieve a down the exact same way and it worked beautifully. We even worked a bit on stay. The best part? I watched tense, frustrated human expressions quickly become replaced by proud, pleased smiles. This was an exercise that I went on to use more regularly in similar situations with wonderful results.

Humans are very outspoken, usually.  We have strong opinions and wild ideas that we want to share with the rest of the world. People waste a lot of energy talking, to be honest. This frequently leads to misunderstanding, arguments, and even the ending of once-positive relationships. To our knowledge, no other creature on this planet can communicate with quite the complexity that we can. As a result, no other creature on this planet can find as many things to bicker, fight, and carry on about as we do! At the end of the day, you have to wonder whose methods of communication are more clear. I'll have to side with dogs and cats on that one. As much as I love the ability to share my own thoughts and opinions, I feel that if we couldn't talk there would be far less need to do so. It sounds crazy until you stop and think about it for a while. :)

Blind dogs must rely more on verbal cues,
and training one can be a crash course in
how difficult it is for dogs to understand
us without the help of eye contact and body
Remember this when you're working with your dog, especially when becoming frustrated: Most of the words coming out of your mouth mean absolutely nothing to him, especially if they aren't said in a very precise way, after very precise training, and/or under very specific circumstances. Dogs pay more attention to body language and the things going on around them. Words will get you worked up in no time flat, which means you'll have almost no hope effectively communicating with a creature who just plain doesn't speak your language. The same applies to physically touching or manipulating the dog as a means of communication. At best, pushing or tugging a dog into position is absolutely sloppy and unclear. This is especially true with very energetic dogs. So, get your emotions in check first. Then, check your body language. Next, know exactly what you're going to ask your dog to do. You might accomplish the behavior by simply waiting for it to happen, then rewarding or encourage it using body language or luring. If you've been reading up on shaping behaviors using a clicker, then you'll have no trouble fitting this into a practice routine. (If you're not familiar with shaping then I highly recommend Jane Killion's book, When Pigs Fly.)

Obviously, this exercise by itself isn't the answer to all dog-related problems, but I firmly believe that it is at the root of the overall solution . I can't think of a single more valuable routine you could put into practice when it comes to learning how to truly communicate with and read a dog.

Give it a shot. Pick a familiar place with few or no distractions and train without a single word. Even if your dog doesn't know even one hand signal, see if you can teach him a simple one in silence by focusing on the body language you'd normally use when asking for a particular cue. No words. No physical manipulation. Just you, your dog, and a mutual understanding of subtleties that you never knew was there.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Let Me Be Myself

The other day as I was driving to work, I had a weird thought cross my mind: If I were a dog what would my personality be like? What type of training might I need to be "the best that I could be?" How would my quirks be interpreted by the humans around me?

I started thinking about the traits that usually get me in the most trouble. I am stubborn and often disagreeable to a fault. I over-analyze everything. When something is happening that I don't agree with (especially when I perceive it as something harmful to myself and/or others) I can't just let it go. (Looking at it from this perspective, I shouldn't be surprised to have ended up with border collies and a bull-headed terrier!)

On top of this, I tend to be fairly high-strung and anxious (my love for even the least sociable of chihuahuas is making more sense...). While I absolutely enjoy a good conversation and spending time with other people, I'm also very much an introvert. I don't like enormous crowds (with a few rare exceptions) and vastly prefer socializing in smaller groups of people I know and am familiar with. This is not to say that I hate people (though you may want to ask me again on a different day or even later today when my neighbors start blasting up the neighborhood with their 4th of July festivities) but I'm just not the type to keep 1,000 friends around. I prefer a handful that I can really get to know. Friendship means something to me and whether you want to admit it or not, it does require energy and risk. We all eventually get our feelings hurt and to me, it had better be worth it in the end.

Would I be considered broken if I were a dog? Probably. How many people want a dog that isn't particularly fond of its own kind, has a stubborn streak, and tilts its head in deep thought (also known as confusion in my world) when you ask for something that should be simple?

You: "Sit, Terri!"
Terri-dog: (thinking) What? Here? This floor is freezing... how about a paw? You usually like it when I give paw.

To make matters worse, being high-strung and somewhat anti-social would definitely make me more likely to become aggressive if my feelings and body language were never taken into consideration. Honestly, if not for my awareness of hygiene as well as my strong desire to stay out of jail, I'd probably go out and bite a few choice people right now. And now that I think about it, most of those people are also ones that don't take my feelings or not-so-subtle hints into consideration.

Let's face it; I would suck as a canine companion. I might even end up dangerous, depending on who my caretaker was and how they handled (or didn't handle) all of my issues. Many trainers might be brought in to try to fix me and to be honest, I can't think of anything that would "cure" me of all my ailments. Improvements could be made (and already have been; you're currently reading from Terri version 3.0 as previous versions were only barely functional), but what would it take to totally turn me around?

I'd have to be someone completely different.

Thankfully, it's not the same with dogs, right? We should be able to get them to do absolutely anything that we want them to do. We should be able to use them for absolutely any purpose that we want to use them for. There are no anxious dogs that need a quieter home and some desensitization to the potential triggers around them. There are no high-strung dogs that need a real outlet for their energy and some special training to learn where to focus it. Dogs should always love playing with other dogs, otherwise there is something vastly wrong with them. There are no broken dogs that are just so terrified of people that they lose control and bite in an effort to save themselves from what they believe is impending danger. The only things those dogs need are discipline and a dominant leader, right? With those two things, any dog can pull a 360 and become the exact opposite of itself. Right?

As a trainer, my mind is usually set to "modify behavior" mode because that's what is asked of me and what I love to do. However, it is so important to remember that dogs are personalities, souls, spirits, however you want to describe them... they are unique individuals. Dogs are made up of not only their genetics, not only their past experiences, but a huge combination of factors that make them who they are. Just like us... only different. Maybe far less different than I originally thought?

They have learned to read humans as humans, not as fellow canines. They regard us in a completely different fashion than they regard each other. At the same time, they come from a background of living in social groups and demonstrate very similar social dynamics. Some of them love everyone of their own species, others are more picky.

By no means am I saying that we should stop training our dogs or working on the issues that they have. It is very important to continuously work with them and help them become better able to cope with the world around them. However, it will be easier and less frustrating for everyone involved if we remain mindful that our dogs aren't robots. Training methods that completely ignore their feelings, body language, and actual thought processes have no place in a world where we recognize our dogs as more than thoughtless machines driven by dominance. We must be fair and realistic in how we approach any behavioral issue.

Behavior can be modified, but to what extent do we need to push this? If your dog bites strangers in your home can you be content just to teach him not to bite or do you absolutely need him to be ok with being cuddled and pet by newcomers as well? Every situation and training need is going to be a bit different, of course, but sometimes compromise is necessary. (It is also important to realize that management is just as important as proper training, especially in situations where someone could get hurt.) How do you manage to cope with your own fears or quirks while successfully functioning in the world? Chances are, you aren't able to change everything 100% and have found little ways to make things work.

I'm very interested to know what kind of "dog personality" you believe you would have? What would your quirks be and what things do you think someone might want or even need to fix? What kind of training would you respond to, if any? Obviously, we have the advantage of being far more mindful of what is around us so keep that in mind. As a dog, you have all the feelings (fear, anxiety, excitability, etc.) but none of the awareness or understanding about what those things are or why they happen. How would this affect you? What type of home would best suit you?

Answer in comments here or feel free to email them to:
You can also visit our Facebook page and post your response to our wall:

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Self Controlled Canines Part III

In prior posts, I explained how to teach your dog "leave it" as well as how to move forward to apply this cue to other dogs/scenarios. Now, I'd like to build on this by offering up other exercises that help improve impulse control as well as provide a couple of examples of applying these principles to dogs who are displaying food aggression or dog reactivity.

Impulse control is all about teaching your dog to react to very stimulating situations in a calm and controlled way. The initial lesson is usually pretty easy for most dogs to grasp but the difficulty comes into applying those lessons to more exciting situations. For instance, if your dog is already fully engaged in rambunctiously greeting guests it is 100 times harder to get him to stop and focus on you than if you had set up the scenario and practiced with the dog before those guests ever arrived. At the end of the day, that's what really does make the difference; practicing in situations where you've set the dog up for success and then building up to the "real life" version of the activity so that your pet knows exactly what is expected and has been mentally prepared to handle it.

On the other hand, there are some really fun games you can play that will actually make your dog better at controlling himself even when he's all worked up! The first one is to teach him the "out" cue for when you're playing tug.
  • Get him super worked up with his favorite tug toy and then offer up another of his favorites from behind your back. He doesn't get the second toy until he's released the first. 
  • Once he's good at the release, add the cue, "Out!!" (Keep in mind that the reward here is simply the other toy; treats can complicate things for some dogs who fixate on them and forget about the toys.) Once your dog is fantastic at releasing the toy on command, eliminate the second toy all together. This is the tricky part! Your timing (be quick!) and energy level (be exciting!!!) are crucial because the reward for releasing the toy is now the joy of being able to grab it again! Get the game going again, wait until the dog is really into it, offer the "out!!" cue and wait for the release. Once the toy is released wait just a couple of seconds (keeping your body very still and holding eye contact with the dog) and as long as your dog doesn't try to snatch it away you can excitedly say "Take it!!" offer it back and let the game begin again. 
  • Make sure he gets a decent amount of tug time in before you give another "out" cue. A dog who will willingly stop on cue right in the middle of a super exciting game of tug is one who deserves some serious play time in return! 
This little trick is really the embodiment of what we ultimately want from all of our dogs when you stop and think about it. It involves the dog completely disengaging from an extremely stimulating sight/sound/activity. If he can master this then you're setting him up to eventually eliminate or prevent excessive barking, overzealous greeting, and other impulsive behaviors that we tend to find obnoxious.
Another great exercise is what I sometimes call "Doggie Drilling." Your dog should know at least a few cues and be reliable with them at home. Sit, Down, and Stay are a good group to use in practice but if he knows more, that's even better.
  • Get your dog's attention then ask for a simple cue like sit. Offer a treat just to pique his interest, then ask for two more (maybe down, then back up to sit if he knows how to do this - most dogs have to be taught to come back up into a sit from the down position so if you haven't worked on that then I'd leave that expectation out of this particular exercise). 
  • Don't ask for the cues in the same order each time and make sure you deliver the reward randomly; not always after every single cue. If your dog has mastered the "out" game mentioned above then this would be a great time to use an exciting game of tug as the reward instead of treats if he's very motivated by play. 
  • Even though we're randomly rewarding I do prefer to use a verbal marker ("Yes!!") after every correct behavior just so my dogs know that even though they didn't get a treat that time, they did actually perform the behavior correctly.  
  • The goal here is to make sure your dog never knows exactly when a reward is coming. He will keep working and offering behaviors because he knows at some point, the reward does happen. 
DO make sure that in the early days of teaching your dog these games that rewards still come pretty frequently so that he doesn't completely lose interest. Your own excitement and energy level will also be a huge asset in accomplishing this. When done correctly, Doggie Drilling helps prevent dogs from trying to "guess" what is going to be asked before you even get a chance to ask it. This also means they have to focus more intently on you to actually think about what you're asking instead of just assuming it's going to be the usual sit, down, then roll over routine. Do NOT offer a treat/reward for a cue that you didn't ask for when playing this game (or generally any time you're working on cues he already knows). He must learn to be attentive to you and wait for you to guide him. In addition to this, it is important to remember that all cues should be given consistently and clearly. If your hand signals and body language are muddy or inconsistent then you'll do nothing more than thoroughly confuse your dog. Also keep in mind that if he offers a behavior that you didn't ask for, just ignore him. No need to yell at, scold or punish him. The important part is that you do have his attention to some extent; it's just a matter of tweaking it so that it becomes true, solid, focus. He's "hearing" you so we just have to teach him to "listen."

The last game I want to mention is called "Freeze." This one is pretty simple but does require careful listening from your dog.
  • Do what it takes to get him playful and excited (call him over, wrestle him around a bit, make him chase you), then....
  • Say "Freeze!!" and stand tall, hands behind your back, waiting for him to stop and watch you. 
  • Once he's stopped and given you eye contact without bouncing around playfully the game can start again.
Sessions for this could end up very short or fairly long, depending on how motivated your dog is by the excitement. This can be a good one to practice in frequent but short bursts on a regular basis. You can also incorporate it into other training sessions or activities such as Doggie Drilling.

All of these games are fun and incredibly helpful in harnessing a dog's energy and teaching focus. This is especially true for young, energetic dogs. But how do you use these types of techniques to help dogs who have more serious issues?

Dog Reactivity: My border collie mix, Cricket, has had issues with reactivity to other dogs. In general, she is extremely excitable when it comes to nearly everything, and in the past this has led to some unpleasant encounters with her fellow canines, especially the smaller ones. She is a shelter dog and her background is murky, though I suspect lack of socialization may have been a big part of her problem. Because of her "unique" personality, she's had issues with other dogs when playing or when being introduced. Her play style can be overbearing and even threatening to other dogs and the same can really be said for her manner of greeting them. This tends to put the other dog on the defensive almost immediately and while Cricket has never hurt one, she has gotten into some scary scuffles due to her social awkwardness and over-excitability. To counteract this, I worked very hard on her ability to "leave it" with other dogs in various situations. I focused on getting her attention and then immediately channeling her energy into other activities. We'd go from a "leave it" straight into some doggie drilling with moments of nothing but focus thrown in. We worked at varied distances from other dogs, to keep her level of excitement in check so that it couldn't be misdirected. Over time she really mastered the art of not completely fixating on what another dog is doing, even in our own home. Her focus is instead on me, and that has allowed us to make great strides. I found that the more I practiced this the less she cared about the other dog in the room. For Cricket, we really had to tap into that energy and actually put it somewhere else rather than struggle to suppress or bottle it. She's still an excitable border collie mix, but the results of our training have been fantastic and we've been able to take in foster dogs without worry of her getting too rough or tormenting them with her relentless pushiness. Even better, there was no need to use a prong, choke, or shock collar. Just some time, patience, and understanding of what needed to happen.

Food Aggression: It is pretty rare to find severe food aggression in a puppy the age of nine or ten weeks old, but it does happen. In the case of our foster puppy, Kota, that's exactly what we got. Not just simple, hungry, growling but full on Cujo-esque food guarding if a human hand touched his bowl. It was shocking, to be completely honest! But Kota is fully blind and came from a less-than-stellar situation. He probably had to put up a fight for his food in order to get it before his sighted siblings gobbled it up first. Sad story or not, it had to be dealt with or else we'd have much bigger teeth to deal with later on. As with other problem behaviors, especially aggression, the first step is to try to prevent the dog from practicing that behavior again. Your goal shouldn't be to encourage the dog to act out just so you can "correct" it but to prevent and then extinguish the behavior by introducing a new routine or a new behavior that doesn't allow the one you don't like. So, with Kota I immediately started teaching "leave it" in scenarios where he didn't usually show signs of food aggression. For instance, we started out the training with me holding kibble (I didn't use anything more tempting as I didn't want him to get too worked up and risk practicing more aggressive behaviors) just as you normally would teach this cue. When he showed a true understanding of what was going on I put some kibble on the floor and practiced there; again, just as you would with any other dog. Once he was good at both of those exercises, I used his actual food dish (but away from his crate where the serious aggression had been displayed) and dropped just a few pieces of kibble in there so he could hear it. I practiced with the bowl just as I had practiced with the food on the floor and he did very well. I then added more kibble and moved his bowl around the floor with my hand. From time to time, after asking him to "leave it" I'd offer the bowl of food for him to take but leave my hand inside of it while he ate. The results were exactly what I'd hoped for and after several practices I was able to do all of this at meal times in his crate. We have not seen a sign of food aggression since and I have no problem reaching into his bowl. We do continue to practice from time to time just to keep the lesson fresh in his mind.

Of course, the fact that Kota was a very young puppy was a huge advantage. Tackling the problem early on meant he didn't have months and months to practice the aggression which would have only made the problem more serious. It also meant that it was handled without pain or fear, which could have easily led to him becoming even more insecure and distrusting of humans as he grew up. Instead, he's happy and confident and he knows what the dinner time routine is. He also knows that the dinner time routine consists of him having his dinner without anyone trying to steal it. "Leave it" has taught him that taking a step back and being patient doesn't mean he loses out on something good; instead, he gains it.

The same principles do work with older dogs, it just takes quite a bit more time and effort. Often, an older dog has had plenty of practice using aggression to hold on to his food and so he has even more reason to believe that it's the right thing to do. On top of this, most owners (and even many trainers) tackle food aggression with hitting, yelling, holding the dog back, or other such methods. In doing so, they yet again reinforce to the dog that dinner time is all about having people (or other dogs) threaten to take away your meal or generally keep you from eating it. Clear communication goes out the window in exchange for a chaotic, tense struggle during which the human thinks he is enforcing his dominance while the dog simply believes he's having to fight for his meal. This is yet another good example of training that attempts to suppress a dog's emotional/mental response to a situation versus training that actually changes his mentality. Instead of making meal time a struggle, it's so much more beneficial to teach your dog a brand new meal time routine. Set him up for success and don't even give him the opportunity to practice aggression. Not only is everyone far less stressed, but the result is a dog who happily embraces your presence around his food instead of one who, internally, is still very tense, unsure and unstable.

Doing things the right way takes time and work. It doesn't happen overnight and "quick fixes" in training are no better than quick fixes for most other things in life. Instant gratification has a habit of coming back to bite you (or those around you) later. My hope is that this series of posts has given you a better idea of how to handle and understand some of the most common complaints from dog owners. Remember that training is all about communication but it also requires patience and understanding. No one is perfect, and that includes your dog. Just because he doesn't act like a robot doesn't mean there is something wrong with him. Thankfully, he is an individual personality with a deep bond to you. This means that you can actually do some remarkable things when you gain his trust, teach him using appropriate methods, and regard him as a unique, intelligent, but sometimes quirky creature.

As mentioned before, I strongly suggest enlisting the help of a qualified, professional trainer (who uses science-based proven methods as opposed to "alpha/pack/dominance" theory) to help you if you're experiencing problems with serious aggression. While I can provide examples and explain how these particular techniques have worked for me, I cannot "diagnose" your dog's aggression problem over the internet and do not suggest that you do so yourself without the help of someone with a very thorough understanding of dog behavior and psychology. Quick tip on choosing a trainer: If they break out the choke, prong, or shock collars and simply instruct you to correct every time the dog "misbehaves" then you're absolutely in the wrong place. If you've missed previous posts on this subject and would like more information about why these techniques are inappropriate, please send me an email and I will be happy to discuss this with you:

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Self Controlled Canines (Part Two: Leave It + Other Dogs)

In the last Self Controlled Canines post I summarized the process of teaching a dog the "leave it" cue and mentioned that this skill can be used to help prevent or overcome common problems such as food aggression or dog reactivity. Before delving any deeper into those subjects I want to make it clear that if you are experiencing serious aggression issues I highly recommend soliciting the help of an experienced, professional trainer (who uses science based, proven methods) to step in and help you begin a training regimen. The most important step to working around a problem with aggression is to step back and carefully assess the source of the dog's anxiety/fear/agitation and take it from there. It's always possible that what you think you're seeing isn't what's actually happening at all. If you find a trainer whose only answer seems to be punishing the dog every time it does something you don't like then walk the other way. Signs of pain, fear, anxiety, agitation, etc. should never be ignored in an animal any more than they should be ignored when teaching a human being. 

After teaching your dog the "leave it" command (as outlined in the last post) we want to make sure that he becomes very good at immediately focusing on you once you've delivered the verbal cue. It is no longer good enough to have your dog just back away from the treat on the floor and we should now be encouraging him to give you his full attention upon hearing those words. This is usually pretty easy to accomplish under normal circumstances (as in, while you're at home as opposed to a busy park). All it takes is a little patience on your part. Have your dog on a leash with treat nearby on the floor. When he shows interest in the treat, calmly tell him to "leave it" and wait several seconds. The moment he turns to look at you, click (or tell him, "Yes!!") and treat from your hand. A few things you should keep in mind are:
  • Don't jerk and pull or wrestle your dog away from the treat. It is very tempting to deliver a leash pop when your dog goes to lunge for the treat, but we don't want a jerk of the leash to become our cue for leaving something and putting the attention back on you. Extra leash tension will also work against you once you're ready to use this cue around other dogs. Not to mention, all that extra effort and activity slows down the process and makes it harder for your dog to pinpoint the appropriate/desired behaviors. Make sure you've got control of the situation before you ever start practicing. Stand firm and at a distance where the dog can't reach the treat. If you have a boxer or other type of dog that loves using his paws like hands be mindful of that as well. I've worked with many a boxer with a knack for making unexpected "arm's length" transactions during this exercise!
  • Don't repeat the command too often!! This is the most common mistake to make when delivering any cue, but especially "leave it." Say the command one time, make sure the dog doesn't have a chance to snatch the treat off the floor, and be patient. If he still hasn't looked back toward you after several seconds, go ahead and deliver the cue again. It usually helps to say the dog's name first; "Kota, leave it!" 
  • It's all about teaching the dog that focusing on you is rewarding AND that it is the only path to getting what he wants. 
Your dog should be practically perfect with this exercise before moving on to working with more difficult distractions. If he is not reactive or otherwise aggressive you can then go on to practicing in close proximity with other dogs who are also well socialized. You just repeat the exercise above, except you treat the other dog as if it were the treat on the ground. You'll need the cooperation of the other dog's handler, of course, and to start off, you don't want the two dogs to get close enough to touch each other. That would be the equivalent of walking your dog close enough to a treat so that he could snatch it up. He must learn that it is extremely rewarding to "leave it" with dogs just as it was with treats. What this means is that when it comes to working around other dogs, you're going to have to offer a really nice reward. Choose a toy or treat of extremely high value.

 If you know the other dog and owner really well and feel comfortable, you can even reward the dogs with a quick play session! Ask them to "leave it," wait for a good solid response of eye contact and moving toward you, then release them to have fun by saying "Go play!!" Just remember that when it's time to go, don't wear out the "leave it" cue by trying to get them to stop in the middle of a play session. That will take practice of its own and the cue will be diminished (ultimately ruined) if your dog learns that it simply means the fun is over. If your dog has been playing off leash but is still in complete play mode when it's time to leave, just casually approach, offer a treat from your hand, and clip on the leash. Cheerfully tell him "Let's go!" and that's that. No matter what skill you're working on, be it recall or "leave it," you should never allow this to become a dramatic affair where you chase the dog around like crazy or become so flustered that he learns that your approach means horrible things are going to happen.

You can even use the exercise above to practice "leave it" with other people. If you have an enthusiastic greeter you can work on practicing this with people during a walk, provided they are ok with helping. Deliver the cue before your dog has a chance to touch (or be touched by) the other person so that he puts his focus back on you. You can combine this with "all four on the floor" training by allowing that person to pet him as long as he has all four feet firmly planted.The same rules apply though; stay in control of the practice session so that you don't end up finding yourself repeating the cue to no avail. As in all the other "leave it" scenarios, your dog has to learn that it is rewarding to focus on you when you ask him to leave it and that doing so has a direct correlation with whether or not he gets to dog what he wants at the time (greet a new person, greet a dog, get a treat, etc.).

The source of all good things has to be you. Not jumping, snatching things off the floor, or rushing into another dog's face. Remember, it takes time, especially when dealing with something that is incredibly exciting to the dog. However, if you are consistent and practice regularly you'll find yourself very proud of your dog's accomplishments! Set him up for success in every situation and you'll soon start to see just how much control your dog can muster when he really puts his mind to it.

In the next post on this subject I'll offer up a couple of examples of using this principle to treat food aggression as well as reactivity with other dogs. DO NOT try the exercises from this post to help with aggression; you do not want to work aggressive dogs in close proximity right off the bat for a variety of reasons. For now, just keep practicing the basics so that your dog has a perfect grasp of the concept. Add in a few new distractions and remember to increase the value of the reward/treat in proportion to the difficulty of the exercise. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment here or send me an email:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Take the Leash!

The need for better education on dog behavior in my community has become much more pronounced over the past few months, with the shelter I had thrown all of my support to deciding to go down a path that I just can't, in clear conscience, join them on. With their decision to not only support but also loudly promote a trainer who believes in shock collars and prong collars exclusively, came my decision to walk away. This is someone who calls positive trainers "dog killers" and boasts about how little he cares if a dog is nervous or afraid. His questionable results are the product of practically ancient training methods used by thousands before him to attempt to gain control quickly, at all costs. Thank God we have learned so much more since the time when this type of training was universally embraced, but many trainers like this guy still remain to preach that quick "fixes" are more important than anything else. 

I firmly believe that our already-fearful, confused, anxious shelter dogs deserve better than intimidation and pain to achieve "results." Those of you who are familiar with progressive/positive training know that despite the level of severity, even an aggressive dog can become a wonderful companion once the source of the problem is identified and dealt with. You don't have to use physical or psychological punishment to accomplish this and that is my message. Ignorance creates these dogs. Ignorance might later suppress their aggressive displays, but it will not "fix" them.  

"We can't solve problems by using the same thinking we used to create them." ~ Albert Einstein

Shelter dogs deserve to be assessed, understood, and then trained based on what they are, not treated as if they come from the same mold and as if they should behave like robots. The use of the outdated, now-debunked pack theory nonsense is the mark of someone who has never learned how to train properly. This is a red flag to indicate someone who has never moved beyond that infantile initial entry into the training world. Anyone can cause a dog to cower, to beg forgiveness, and to be afraid enough to stop whatever it's doing. (The secret ingredient  that these trainers so cleverly try to disguise is simply punishment, and the level of punishment is directly dictated by just how motivated the dog is to continue displaying the behavior that you want to eliminate.) It takes skill and education to actually train a dog to the point where it is no longer afraid and knows how to properly communicate without the use of aggression. Your dog should be able to confidently look you in the eye to ask for guidance, not stare at the ground hoping to avoid the next round of punishment.  I have been on both sides of this issue and the one I'm on now has led to much happier, more stable dogs. I've seen the darkest depths of that other side and I will not stand by and give any inkling of support in that dismal, outdated, misguided direction. 

For those of you who are ever in a similar situation... raise your voice. Do it diplomatically, respectfully, and tactfully, but don't let it go completely unheard. And if you're still not sure where you stand, keep researching; ALL sides, not just the first one you hear.

"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people."  ~Martin Luther King, Jr 

Sunday is our very first Take the Leash seminar, where we will attempt to educate our community on the basis of dog training and behavior. It has recently become even more obvious to me that the reason many people choose training based on fear and pain is that they just don't know any better. If I can help it, there will be no more excuses. Knowledge is both power and responsibility. I feel our community deserves to be told the truth so that they can then make an educated, well-informed decision and then spread the word to others. The seminar is free for anyone who can attend, I only ask that those interested RSVP by sending me an email: 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Self Controlled Canines (Part One: Leave It)

Many dogs seem to know that if
they look at the object of their desire
they won't be able to resist taking it,
so they actively look away instead!
Behind every dog that has learned to ignore a squirrel, stop jumping on guests, or cease relentless barking, there is one valuable lesson at work: self control. Believe it or not, this is even harder for dogs than it is for humans. Humans can immediately rationalize the benefits of practicing a little self control (even if we don't always follow through) but dogs have to really have it spelled out for them. After all, if they weren't living with us then their entire lives would be ruled purely by instincts and impulses. Chasing, barking, and even enthusiastically greeting are all normal dog behaviors. When curbing those behaviors we have to not only teach the dog what we want him to do but also help him learn how to control the irresistible urge to act on impulse.

Certain lessons in your average obedience class are fantastic for practicing this. My absolute favorite is "leave it." If you're not familiar with this cue/command you can think of it as teaching your dog the meaning of patience. You start off just teaching him to leave a treat in your hand or on the floor until you give him the cue to take it. Very simple stuff, just follow these steps:

1. Hold a yummy treat in your closed fist, making sure that your dog first knows it's there.
2. Do NOT let the dog taste or grab the treat (hence the closed fist).
3. Keep your fist held out toward your dog so that he can inspect it. Expect lots of licking/pawing/frantic searching for a way to get to the food but do NOT move or jerk your hand away. Be patient and allow your dog to figure this out on his own. It will happen.
4. The very instant that your dog backs away or looks away from the treat, click (or say YES!) and offer the treat. You can say "Take it!" as you give the treat to your dog.
(Note: Usually I would advise against adding the verbal cue before the dog has caught on to what you want as he doesn't know what it means yet, but in this case you can sometimes use the tone of your voice as you say "leave it" to give your dog a bit of a clue if he's not catching on at all. This doesn't mean to yell at him...if anything you should just calmly say this to kind of redirect his thinking. And be sure to NOT repeat the cue over and over and over again as he'll only learn to completely ignore the words.)

Once you're positive that your dog has caught on to this trick you can increase the difficulty a bit by offering the treat in an open palm instead of a closed fist. It will feel as if you're starting all over but as long as you're fast enough to keep Fido from snatching the treat right out of your hand (remember, close your fist, don't jerk your hand away if you can help it), he'll figure it out without much trouble. If he does manage to sneak past you, just aim to be quicker next time. You'll get pretty skillful at looking for that little glint in his eye right before he pounces! It really is like a game and a score is being kept. In order to solidify a behavior you need to make sure that you win by a landslide, not by a hair. Every instance where your pup manages to sneak the treat away without "leaving it" is an instance where he begins to think that that's the best strategy to use! Prevent this as much as possible.

Once Fido has mastered leaving treats in your hand, start placing them on the floor a good distance away from him. Make sure you're on top of things and can cover the treat with your hand immediately if he tries to snatch it up. Again, be quick and win this game by a landslide! When he backs away or just stops actively trying to get the treat then instantly click and treat (or say YES! and treat). 

"Leave it" with other dogs is especially appreciated by
the other dogs.
"Leave it" will become more than just a cute trick with food. I've successfully used the principle of this cue to eliminate food aggression as well as reactivity with other dogs. These uses will be discussed in later parts of this series of posts and I highly suggest practicing the basics in the meantime. I've yet to meet a dog who didn't benefit from a good, solid understanding of "leave it."

If you do decide to practice this week (and I hope you do!), here's a great tip: Our ultimate goal is not just for your dog to look away or even step away from the food, but to bring the focus back to you as well. Anytime you catch a good "leave it" that also involves eye contact from your dog, make sure to be extra enthusiastic about reinforcing it. That will be the key going forward.

If you practice correctly your dog will quickly catch on. Remember that we're basically teaching two things here: 1) Stepping away from the tempting food is REWARDING and 2) trying to take the food simply doesn't work. Your pup will try really hard before finally giving up, but be patient, it will happen!

Good luck, and feel free to email with any questions!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Whatever Works

For every strong belief there is another that opposes it. Most of you are probably familiar with the "differences of opinion" between positive trainers and alpha trainers. At some point or another, it has probably affected you as a dog owner. If not, it certainly will eventually. As someone who has been a trainer on both sides of the spectrum I can say from experience that experience rarely even matters during such a debate. When all is said and done, the argument about training philosophies unfortunately comes down to emotions. Why is this?

Everyone at some point has watched either set of methods "work" on one dog or another. That's just how it is. If that weren't the case, this would be a much easier argument for one side or the other to win. Of course, it's just not that simple. Your groomer has probably "dominated" many a dog until it stopped biting and squirming (unless you have one of the few who actually understand how to get results by using positive reinforcement). Your local positive reinforcement trainer (assuming they have the appropriate skills and aren't just "playing trainer") has turned around a food or dog aggressive dog. One of your neighbors has probably figured out a prong collar to the extent of being able to walk his dog without dislocating a limb.

The glaring differences appear if you stand back to look at why different techniques create results. Why does a dog stop pulling when you use a prong collar? The most common answer from alpha trainers is that "it gets their attention." This is also their answer for shock collars and other such devices. Personally, I am pretty certain that about 99% of them know that this isn't necessarily true. I'm sure these collars manage to get your dog's attention but so would a poke, prod, or the sound of a whistle. What's so "attention-getting" about a prong or shock collar? It is painful. Perhaps just an instant of pain, but it is pain nonetheless. If you can't even acknowledge this simple fact then you probably shouldn't start using one of these tools. (Can you imagine how shock-happy your average person might get if they truly didn't believe a shock collar caused pain??)

During a debate over training methods I actually had someone ask me if I could get ten dogs to walk off leash next to a busy highway the way another trainer does. My response was that I absolutely could, especially if I used a shock collar on them as this other trainer does. Anyone could. (It's called an underground fence and while it's the same concept I have to say that the underground fence would be more humane considering the dog ends up with a clear idea of where his boundaries are.) Of course, you can teach a reliable recall without a shock collar as well but I don't know what the point of practicing next to a busy highway would be other than to make yourself look special? I've had plenty of safe, fun, productive off leash practices with multiple dogs without the use of any special collar. At any rate, it still comes down to results. If you wanted to teach your dog to stay near you off leash then yes, a shock collar could very quickly give you the desired results.

Blind foster puppy Kota had intense fear of any terrain
that wasn't grass.
Another great example of the differences in technique come when handling fears and phobias. This is probably where I have the most trouble staying professional and letting go of emotions. I simply cannot stand the thought of a fearful animal being mishandled. I've seen it too many times. I've accidentally practiced it myself... I can't and won't stand back to watch it happen ever again. Of course, in writing this post I still have to point out that either set of training methods can supply results. For example, if you have a dog afraid of going up steps you could attach the leash to his collar and pull your pet up and down until he finally comes/goes willingly. For some dogs, that might be the fastest way. For others, it will be the fastest way to getting yourself bitten. The positive approach would involve desensitizing the dog to the stairs a little bit at a time by using rewards (food, toys, belly rubs, whatever your dog likes). Depending on the dog, it might be just as fast. For those dogs that would have ended up biting you for dragging them around, it'll take a little more time as their fear is much stronger. Again, either way can work. One of those ways does involve exposing your dog to terror for however long it takes and could result in him never wanting to be touched by you or wear the leash again or go anywhere near your stairs but hey... it might instead be a quick fix, right? Totally worth it.

So, what's really so bad about an instant of pain or a few minutes spent forcing your dog to face his fears as long as it works? It really depends. A fearful dog can easily be turned into a fear aggressive dog if it feels that you are suddenly a threat instead of a protector. Even a fearful dog who doesn't go on to show aggression has to endure all the time spent being terrorized by the object of its fear. A dog trained by a shock collar has to, of course, endure the pain of the shock collar. Don't let anyone tell you it isn't painful unless you watch them tightly fit the collar around their neck (not their arm, not their leg) and withstand the shock themselves. The urge to leave your side and chase a squirrel or explore is too strong to be overcome simply by a happy little vibration "getting your dog's attention" for a moment. This is common sense.

My point is that it's not about what works. It's about why it works (or might work) and the relationship that you want with your dog. A shock collar might fix your problem for you, but at least understand why and understand that there are other ways. Don't let someone convince you that there isn't a pain-free way to handle the issue. Many "last resort" cases end up either dying or wearing a shock collar because someone didn't have the time or take the time to handle it otherwise. Many last resort cases also started with someone who hit them, kicked them, or jerked them around. This would be considered abuse and most of us would fight against it. Can we really condemn hitting but promote shocking at the same time? Is that something that you're ok with on a personal level?

I've written before about teaching dogs to make good decisions but this time it's about us. What type of owner and trainer do we really want to be? Have we really become so lazy that we've given up on taking the time to understand what we're doing? Have we gotten so deluded that as long as we call it a "remote collar" we can pretend it does something completely different than cause pain? As I mentioned in a recent Facebook post, I think I could stomach hearing about aversive training methods a little more easily if I felt that the people using them really understood what they were doing. If you're ok using pain to train and you've done your research and weighed the risks then there is little more that I can say. But if you believe that it's the only way to get results and that it doesn't hurt (???) then I hope that someday you find a trainer who can demonstrate the truth to you. Sometimes I feel that I've failed in this regard but I am confident that as time goes on and people actually see the amazing things that can be done with communicative, progressive training they will turn around.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Babies Vs. Pets (Round One)

It has been about two months since Matt and I found out that we were going to be parents to an actual human being. The news was exciting and we were happy, but like many women who experience that kind of shock, I cried immediately. However, my tears had nothing to do with worries that we might not be good parents or that we couldn't handle the situation. My initial panic was brought on by the irrational thought that being pregnant would make me suddenly dislike my pets. All of a sudden, I was one of those people.

This was something I had thought about in the past, even before I considered that I might actually want a baby. For so many years I had watched one person after another abandon or become completely cold to their pet the moment a baby entered the picture. I even heard more than one person say that "Once you have a baby, your dog just becomes a dog." That saying never sat well with me and deeply irritates me to this day.

I remember being teary-eyed and looking down at my sweet Obi-Wan and goofy Cricket... I even looked over to Sugar, our foster dog at the time, and cried even harder. What if everyone was right? What if, like them, I suddenly stopped caring very much for my pets? I knew I loved them and I didn't feel that anything could change that but what if pregnancy, with all of its insane physical and hormonal changes, could cause some crazy chemical imbalance in the brain that forced a woman to abandon all nurturing feelings she once had for her beloved pets?? If that were the case I could never be me again. The thought, irrational or not, was terrifying.

Despite the comforting words and reassurance from Matt that I would always be me and that nothing was going to happen to our dogs, it has taken quite some time for me to calm down about this. That isn't something that I like to admit but is something I find myself having to constantly face. If you've ever been in my shoes you might have experienced having people you barely know (or some who actually know you fairly well) imply that your dogs/pets have no place in your life anymore. No one has actually come out and stated this to me (who would really be brave enough to insult me in that fashion while I'm a crazy pregnant lady?) but it has certainly been implied.

Of course, I am still me. Since finding out the news of being pregnant I've taken on more dog training clients, taken in a blind border collie foster puppy, and spent this entire weekend by the side of my poor Obi-Wan who just endured surgery to have his blind eye removed. I am somewhere around 14 weeks along and so far the hormonal voices in my head haven't instructed me to dump anyone at the shelter just yet. Their only demands thus far have been for popsicles, grilled cheese, fruit snacks, and cold turkey sandwiches that I'm not allowed to have.

As suggested by a friend, I will try to document some of the things that we do to prepare our four-legged family for the presence of a two-legged addition. Hopefully, this will be helpful to others and we can fight society's message that having a baby somehow means it's perfectly ok to suddenly abandon your dogs or cats. I don't believe it's normal for an animal lover to suddenly stop loving their animals. That said, I don't claim to know exactly what it's like to be a mother. I fully expect this to be a challenging, difficult road. I also expect to love and value my human child even more than I love my pets. But I guess that's the point that I'm trying to make: It's not about loving them equally; I honestly don't believe that is realistic. If you absolutely had to choose between the two you would easily choose your child. However, I also don't believe that this should be misconstrued or misrepresented as diminished love for your pet. Instead, it should be regarded as a testament to just how much a human being can love their own flesh and blood. I have a great deal of love and respect for my pets and will always do everything I can for them. Knowing that the love I'll have for my child is going to be even stronger than this gives me great hope that I will be a good mother.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

It's Your Choice.

As a volunteer for our local (amazing) shelter, I recently attended an adoption event at a large area pet store. While walking one of the shelter dogs and working on some really simple leash exercises, I jokingly said, "Alright, let's make good choices!" Oddly enough, even though I knew the dog had no idea what I was talking about, I wasn't really kidding.

"Shiloh" the shelter dog
learning the beginnings of
impulse control.
The reality is that anytime I have a shelter dog (or any dog) on the other end of my leash, I'm very much focused on the choices he's making versus the ones that I want him to make. Is he lunging at other dogs? Is he pulling me around like crazy? Even though dogs are usually very impulsive creatures, they have to make choices just as we do. Our responsibility is to teach them to consciously make the appropriate decision even under challenging (exciting) circumstances. Trust me, you want a dog to stop and think before he acts. Acting purely on impulse tends to be bad for anyone, human or pet!

So, how do you want to accomplish this? How can you possibly keep your crazy, unruly dog from making bad decisions when he has no apparent interest in doing what you ask?

Some of you might choose the route of using an ultimatum. Either Fluffy does what you ask or else. The "or else" is usually a jerk on the leash, smack on the bottom, or other aversive measure. If Fluffy truly knows the command that you're asking of her, then those corrections could be enough to make her do what you want.

Then again, let's say your reprimand is a smack on the bottom but Fluffy is in a brand new place and really excitable around other dogs. There are at least a few other dogs around and Fluffy is losing her cool every two seconds. In turn, you lose your cool and after yelling "NO" several times you resort to smacking her rear end. Depending on her personality, it might actually work. However, in this scenario, Fluffy is a feisty dog with a real zest for life (i.e. "attitude") and continues yapping, lunging, and carrying on in the most embarrassing way imaginable.

So, now what?

Even Obi practices tolerance with the
foster puppy, Kota.
If you're like most people I've observed, you'll stand over Fluffy relentlessly repeating commands as you grow more and more frustrated. In order for your punishment (be it spanking, leash jerks, etc.) to work you will obviously have to be more harsh with them. Meanwhile, Fluffy continues to get more worked up by the other dogs and excitement around her. This is usually the point when I see a very angry and mortified dog owner reach down and physically turn the dog around, grab its muzzle, snap the leash, or otherwise maneuver the animal with some level of force. This is also a common scenario during which I've observed a nip from the dog who is now completely overstimulated. Once your dog reaches this state of anxiety/excitement, it isn't learning. Chances are, if you've let it go this far you're not really using your brain very much either.

The alternative to this, and what most people (and even trainers) do not focus on, is to teach your dog the correct way to behave. Physically pushing, shoving, or jerking your dog around doesn't really accomplish this. In your mind you're trying to teach her what not to do, but that seldom gets you very far when you've laid no foundation on teaching impulse control or working under distractions.

What if your dog truly obeyed when you told her to "leave it" and knew that doing so was a great decision? Sure, it takes a little time and practice, but it's a fantastic tool when taught properly.* The same goes for any obedience command; they exist for a reason and if you haven't trained your dog to the point where those commands are actually useful, then you've got a lot more work ahead of you. Just because your dog has mastered commands at home or in the back yard doesn't mean she's acquired the impulse control and expertise she needs to exercise those lessons in a busy park or store. Practice! It is an unfortunate fact that there is no easy way around this unless you're ok with upping the ante on the amount of fear or pain you're comfortable exerting upon your pet. Some of the more timid dogs will respond to those things quickly but the more outgoing animals may very well require a real beating before your punishment outweighs their desire to explore, play with, or greet things in a very stimulating environment. I doubt any of us really want to take things that far and if you do, then it's time to find a new home for your dog (not to mention, some mental help and anger management for yourself).

Using rewards doesn't make you weak. Rewarding your dog doesn't magically take away any "respect" that he has for you or cause him to think that you're a two-legged joke. What rewards will do is quickly create a thinking animal. I strongly prefer to see a sparkle in a dog's eyes as it tries to figure out how to obtain his reward than a cringe, jump, or cower when he suddenly worries that he's going to get in trouble for getting something wrong. Dogs trained solely with reward-based methods and true understanding of dog behavior will guess at things and work for you. They will actually make up new "tricks" when trying to figure out what you want. When working on teaching Obi to pick up a toy and hold it, he offered many interesting behaviors including picking up the toy, walking backwards, then sitting against a wall! Sometimes they can over-think things.

Foster puppies make for great
Rewards can be anything from a treat, to a toy, to a life-based reward (such as allowing your leashed dog to explore a grassy area because he chose not to pull you there). Believe it or not, when you train a dog with rewards and teach him the right thing to do rather than focusing completely on what he's doing wrong, he will learn to immediately listen to you and to do so habitually. He will defer to your clear direction whether or not you have treats. Proper training results in your dog learning that he can communicate with you and that you're able to communicate back. Frustration, pain, and fear will eventually lead to aggression and a dog who no longer has the confidence to stop and think about what you're asking. On the other hand, a confident, thinking dog can go on to accomplish nearly anything that his owner/trainer desires.

*More to come on how to teach and proof the "leave it" cue.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Light Bulb Moment

Obi with his best new "BFF,"
my friend Betty's foster dog, Dancer
If I had to single out one thing that got me hooked on dog training (aside from the general awesomeness of dogs themselves, of course) it would be the "light bulb" moment. This is the instant that a dog actually understands what you're asking him to do. He's no longer just following the treat in your hand or desperately throwing out behaviors to "guess" what you actually want from him; he knows. It really doesn't get more exciting than that and you don't have to be a dog trainer to know the feeling I'm referring to. To some extent I believe that half of the excitement for many people is simply realizing that yes, your dog is capable of learning after all!

Everyone is happy when the light bulb in your pet's cute little head is doing more than just collecting dust. The dog gets praise, the trainer (if there is one) gets praise, and the owner is happy with his/her choice of training methods. Unfortunately, things get much trickier when that light bulb merely flickers.

There comes a point when Dog and Owner pretty much switch roles. During training, your dog will desperately try to figure out what you are asking so that he can get a reward. He may follow a treat in your hand or try to offer behaviors that worked in the past. If things get too frustrating, he might even give up.

People do this too.

The Light Bulb Moment is a very thrilling and desirable reward to us humans. We want to see our dogs learn something new. We want to see our dogs become obedient, pleasant companions. Any moment when we can see very obvious progress is a happy and reinforcing moment for us. So, if we've worked toward a particular behavior (or set of behaviors) and had no obvious progress, we become frustrated and less consistent. We start grasping at different ways to make it work. We want to force that light bulb moment to happen.

The problem arises when this moment doesn't actually exist.

Spoiled by all the instances in the past when we saw our dogs excel and grasp new lessons fairly quickly, we tend to forget that some goals are much more difficult to achieve and that our dogs are not robots. Sometimes the lesson we are teaching isn't a simple shift in body position such as "sit" but requires changing actual parts of the dog's demeanor or mindset. If your male dog hates other male dogs then you've got a lot more working against you than you did when he just needed to learn how to sit or roll over. You're no longer asking him to simply do something so that he can get a reward. You're asking him to stop feeling a certain way. Similarly, if your dog is snappy around small children, then there isn't going to be a single magical instant when she suddenly decides that children are the best things ever. Scenarios like this are usually tied to feelings such as fear, insecurity, or lack of proper socialization. In many cases, you're also up against genetics. You can't physically "correct" a dog into being less afraid, more confident, or better socialized. You certainly can't correct an animal's breeding with a swift kick or a prong collar.

There isn't a product you can buy or a trainer you can hire who can truly step in and fix issues like this overnight. The closest you might ever get to an "instant fix" is a trainer or product that causes your pet so much fear, pain, and/or discomfort that the behavior becomes temporarily suppressed. (Beware the trainer who guarantees a quick fix and throws around the word "respect" all too often. Many dog lovers don't realize this, and I'll go to my grave trying to get them to, but "respect" in the canine world has just become another word for "fear." If you don't believe me, have a very good look at a dog in the hands of someone teaching it respect and tell me the difference between that animal's body language and the body language of one that is just plain scared or nervous.)

It takes time.

No one wants to hear those words, but there they are. Not only does it take that horrible commodity called time, but it takes the power of patience and the (eventual) magic of consistency. These things all tie together to create a training and management plan that does have the potential to turn around an aggressive, reactive, shy, or fearful dog. If you're constantly looking for the "light bulb moment" you'll almost certainly become impatient and inconsistent. Just like your dog throwing out random behaviors trying to figure out what will work, you'll do the same until you become too frustrated to even try anymore. 

The dog afraid of everything isn't going to wake up tomorrow afraid of nothing until it has awakened many, many mornings afraid of a little less.

Sometimes behavior modification happens so gradually that you don't even notice the improvement. This is why management is such an important part of the equation when dealing with tougher issues. If you can't, from the start, create a safe environment for one of these "more difficult" dogs, then you've already lost the battle. For instance, an unsocialized dog needs an enormous number of positive experiences versus negative ones. Every negative experience involving the object of its fear and/or aggression is a major setback. This is one of the hurdles you would have to be prepared to deal with for the long term. Having unrealistic expectations and simply holding out for instant gratification would easily hinder any real progress.  If you're constantly looking for the one thing that will quickly "cure" the problem, then your focus is not going to be on proper management, technique, or consistency.

My goal as a trainer is to help teach people how dogs really perceive the world around them and how to communicate with them in a way that is going to benefit everyone involved. There have been a few moments recently that really made me want to give up on sharing these ideas with others. There were times when I felt that force-based training would always have such a strong hold on us ( thanks in part to sneaky TV editing and faulty research of the past) that it's pointless to even try to share what is now known to be scientific, proven, factual dog psychology. Thankfully, it finally occurred to me that I have been falling into the Light Bulb trap myself. There won't be a day when I wake up to a world of fully-enlightened, progressive dog owners and trainers. It's going to be one person at a time, one dog at a time, and the only way to ever make even the tiniest difference is to keep writing, keep training, keep learning, and keep networking with like-minded people. Communication and education are absolutely the key and I am forever grateful to those who take the time to read my posts or listen to me ramble even when they don't completely agree. Slowly and steadily we will make a difference. (Though, if the universe wants to prove me wrong I'm ok with waking up tomorrow to that world full of enlightened people too.)